Suffering Well, How to Steward God’s Most Feared Blessing

Rick Thomas is a biblical counselor who leads a training network called The Counseling Solutions Group, Inc. In 1988, his wife of nine years left him, taking his children with her and never coming back. Thus began the darkest period of his life from which he did not fully recover for ten years (p. 126). During the first four years of this devastating time, he embarked on an intense study of Job who became his “closest friend” (pp. 14, 118). This was especially true since he felt marginalized by his legalistic, fundamentalist Christian community (as he labels them) (p. 14), and all of his family and friends abandoned him (p. 120). It is from Thomas’ experience of suffering and his study of the book of Job that Suffering Well emerged.

Thomas is on target when he directs his readers to not connect their suffering to a formula, to know that the Lord loves them beyond their ability to understand, that God is sovereign (He controls and allows all suffering, p. 84), and that everything in life should move us to worship (p. 35). We need to adjust our attitudes to “theocentric ways” (p. 53) and realize that not everything has an immediate answer (p. 42). Thomas asks if it would be enough if we only had Christ (p. 75) and instructs his readers that we are most vulnerable at the point where we fear losing something (p. 76). The things that mean the most to us are the things that control us, he claims (p. 77).

Thomas offers a seven step process that will guide us through our times of suffering (this is good counsel) (pp. 90-95) and seven things we can do to comfort others (pp. 99-103), which are well worth considering. And the author is correct when he states that Job wanted explanations rather than trusting God (p. 147).

Thomas scores some good points in Suffering Well but unfortunately there are numerous concerns that can be grouped around several categories:

  • Thomas is a careless exegete of Scripture. That is to say, even when he is correct in something that he is saying, he often misuses Scripture to prove his point. For example, he writes that Job should not have sought the counsel of his friends (p. 42) without noticing that Job never says he sought their counsel. The author uses many biblical passages out of context with Hebrews chapter four as exhibit “A.” The “rest” described in Hebrews is a Sabbath rest which combines salvation and eternal rest, not resting in Christ during times of suffering (see p. 43). He claims the fire and wind in Job chapter one are God’s when the texts attribute them to Satan (pp. 46-47). Isaiah 53:3 is pressed into service to describe Job’s experience, when it is a prophecy dealing with Christ (p. 67). He applies Philippians 3:7 to the loss that accompanies suffering, whereby Paul was speaking of what he had laid down when he came to Christ (p. 73). Thomas says that the Lord is putting us to death and uses Romans 12:2 as his proof-text (p. 77). But Paul does not mention God putting anyone to death in the text, rather, we are called to personally take action and be “living” sacrifices. He mistakenly attributes Job’s words in Job 28:28 to the Lord (p. 136), and tells his readers that Job was released from his captivity when he loved his friends (pp. 180-181). However, the text does not say Job loved his friends, but he prayed for them as the Lord instructed. He also uses John 12:24, a prophesy Jesus speaks concerning Himself, to mean that we should die to self (pp. 19-20). And he makes narrative normative when he promises God’s “inestimable favor” if we meet the condition given to Job in 42:10 (p. 28). At best, these examples demonstrate careless misuse of Scripture.
  • Thomas over emphasizes suffering. Although this might be expected in a book about suffering, Thomas nevertheless centralizes the Christian life so much around suffering as to distort its biblical purpose. Again, misusing Scripture, he makes a number of misguided comments beginning with applying Isaiah 53:10 concerning crushing the Son of God to himself because he is now a son of God (pp. 15, 16). Throughout the book, he rarely, if ever, distinguishes suffering for the cause of Christ from suffering in general. Because of this blunder, Thomas can claim that we cannot participate in the power of Christ’s resurrection until we have engaged in His suffering (Phil. 1:29; 3:10) (pp. 20-21, see p. 125). But Thomas’ divorce was not suffering for Christ; it was the consequence of sin. Yet, he sardonically writes, “Hey, you wanna suffer? Become a Christian… The more serious you make your faith the more you will suffer” (p. 21). This is a lop-sided concept of the Christian life that cannot be supported by Scripture. Thomas believes the most effective way to be free is to suffer, yet again he does not separate suffering for the cause of Christ and suffering in general as a result of living in a sin-cursed world (p. 152). He seems to balance this at times such as when he recognizes that the Lord uses suffering to shape us into His image (pp. 154-155). But he lacks the recognition that suffering is merely one of the instruments God uses in our lives—He has many others in His tool box.
  • Thomas does not understand Job’s real problem. Having spent years studying the book of Job, he should have recognized that Job and his friends had faulty worldviews. All of them, including Job, were confused about suffering because they had karma-like philosophies of life, justice, and God. They believed that we all get what we deserve and therefore only the wicked suffer. When Job suffered, the dialogue centered on his friends trying to prove he was justly suffering because he was wicked, and Job defended himself. Only once could I find where Thomas admitted that Job believed in the retribution principle (pp. 38-39). Because the author misses the underlying worldview that drove the thinking of all of them (Job included), he misses what God is up to in Job’s life. Thomas views Job as a mature Christian (p. 65)—but Job was not a Christian, as this term applies only to the church age believers). And while he was the best man of his times and was declared blameless, he had some deep-seated misconceptions about himself and God. The main thrust of the book of Job is how God reveals and roots out these false concepts in Job’s life. Thomas believes that Job changed as he endured suffering and began to separate himself from the God that he loved (p. 108). The truth is that God exposes the true heart of Job in order to change him. Job did not develop bad theology because he suffered; his wrong views were exposed as he suffered. This is a big difference in the comprehension of both the book of Job and suffering in general (see pp. 148-152, 170-172).
  • Thomas mishandles the “fear of the Lord” writing, “The fear of the Lord is not to be afraid of Him but to be afraid of yourself” (p. 136). This is a truncated understanding of what it means to fear the Lord. Thomas may actually have a better understanding of the fear of the Lord, but careless statements like this peppered the book.
  • One of the most disturbing features of Suffering Well is Thomas’ explanation of how God communicates to us which is taught especially in chapter 13, “The Benefits of a Silent God.” Thomas equates God’s silence with his experience in which he questions if God is there and cares (pp. 133, 134, 140, 142, 145, 146). But the truth is that God is always there and is never silent since He speaks to us in His Word, which is always available. Thomas does not teach this truth but allows his experience to shape his theology. He even implies that experience, not Scripture, was his best teacher (p. 194). Thomas declares that God proposed three questions to him but does not say how God communicated these questions to him (p. 179ff), leaving the reader to confusion about how God communicates.
  • Thomas teaches that the number one thing that churns anger is fear (p. 170). This statement must be challenged since greed, pride, lust and a host of other sins vie for that honor. Again, a careless statement.
  • Perhaps the greatest concern in the book is when the author gives the formula for sanctification: Jesus + nothing = sanctification (p. 73). This is a purely passive, libertine understanding of sanctification that will not withstand the clear teaching of Scripture.

Overall, while Suffering Well has some helpful insights, the weaknesses mentioned above would call for careful discernment for any reader and especially for those who are not well-grounded in the Word

by Rick Thomas (Greer, SC: The Counseling Solutions Group, 2018), 194 pp., paper $15.00

Reviewed by Gary E. Gilley, Southern View Chapel